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The Psychology of Colors

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We long for golden sunsets, stop for red signs, and suffer from "the blues." This amazing world envelopes us in myriad colors, each invoking a different response. In this article, New Riders' author Owen Demers breaks down how and why we respond to colors the way we do.
This article is excerpted from [Digital] Texturing and Painting, by Owen Demers.
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The Psychology of Colors

Colors can have a psychological and physiological effect on all of us. As an artist, a user and manipulator of color, you need to be aware of some of these effects. This article on color psychology and physiology is a combination of personal observation and the ideas and observations of two major authors and their books on the subject: The Power of Color by Dr. Morton Walker and Color Psychology and Color Therapy by Faber Birren. These two authors, and the experts they cite, delve much more finely and deeply into this vast area of color theory than there is room for here. I have taken the highlights, as it were, from these sources just to give you an idea of what it is you are dealing with when considering color.

From this research, it seems that the jury is still out on the definitive psychological effects of color on living things. Yet, certain professionals, such as chromotherapists (therapists who use color for medical purposes), believe color affects us so powerfully that subjecting patients to different colored lights has curative qualities for their various ailments. This is not a new age idea. On page 32 in his book The Power of Color, Dr. Morton Walker states that

"...The ancient Egyptians, for example, built temples for the sick that were bedecked with color and light. They set aside special colored rooms as sanctuaries where the sick could be bathed in lights of deep blue, violet, and pink. Native American Indians also used color for healing ... to fight chronic illness and to heal injuries sustained during buffalo hunts and intertribal warfare."

According to William G. Cooper, president of the Cooper Foundation, (a nonprofit educational organization offering natural methods of healing to the public), in The Power of Color (p.xiii),

"...Light is a nutrient and, like food, is necessary for optimum health. Research demonstrates that the full spectrum of daylight is needed to stimulate our endocrine systems properly."

I give you these two examples to show you that the use of color is not reserved simply for pretty picture making. It is a subject taken quite seriously by professionals other than artists. By looking into the psychology of color more deeply, you can better influence and illustrate the message, mood, and flavor of your projects.

So, how do we feel about one color over another? We all have personal color likes and dislikes based on our own lives and experiences. Whether you love red and hate orange based on some wonderful or tragic event in your life, there seems to be underlying similarities with color and living things, not only humans. In this light, take a look at the colors of the spectrum.

Red

Red is the most arrogant, attention-grabbing, and energetic color of the spectrum. In terms of temperature, it is the warmest color. Emotionally, we relate red to love and passion. Red is the color associated with our hearts: roses are red, and so are boxes filled with chocolates on Valentine's Day. It is the color that excites us most and makes us take notice--the color of stop signs, fire engines, and alarms. Red is an in-your-face color that demands your attention, not a color that sits idly by waiting for you to take notice. Because red excites us, it is not the choice of color in psychiatric wards, prisons, or hospitals. Excessive subjection to red can lead to agitation, anger, and even violence.

Advertisers and designers who understand this can easily manipulate our attention with it. Sale items in stores display red tags. Fast sports cars, and now, even not-so-fast cars are often painted red (Figure 1).

Figure 1 Not exactly sport cars, but red seems to be the color of choice in Budapest, Hungary in 1989.

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